“I will certainly stipulate in my will that my letters never be published.”
The phenomenon called the “First Wave” of Russian emigre literature made its appearance in the West under unique circumstances. Disoriented and defensive, this distinguished group of cultural and literary figures had to start over, straight from the throes of the October Revolution. Émigré literature never became a “movement” in the way Symbolism was. It had too much variety, too many factions, and too few consistent platforms to fit into any “ism.” But what it did share, and what, in the absence of a viable Soviet literature, gave it a certain birthright and moral authority, was the political fact of exile. Reworked and refined in a multitude of literary permutations, the theme of exile was the émigré writer's idée fixe, always hovering at the edge of consciousness. This fact needs stressing from the outset because rarely in the course of world literature has there been so vivid an example of extraliterary causality on such a scale. And since the “birth” and “death” of the First Wave coincide neatly with events outside it, namely the Revolution and World War II, perhaps something like a biological metaphor for this phenomenon would be, in terms of literary history, not merely decorative or iconographic but bizarrely realized. The fate of Russian émigré literature between the wars suggests, in almost Spenglerian terms, that something as large and diverse as a national literature can have a life and death. One aim of this study is to show how the politics that gave the First Wave life were, mutatis mutandis, the politics that led to its eventual demise. After briefly establishing a context, I will turn to the years immediately following World War II and to the case of Ivan Bunin, a writer who was known, ironically, for his fastidious avoidance of politics. My central thesis is that the postwar years were marked by controversy and that a leading figure in this controversy was Bunin.